Switch on to design's potential

How a bright idea could bring light to the developing world

David Baker

Imagine a world without electric light. What would it be like? What problems would you and your community face? What solutions might you come up with?

These are the opening questions for my 13- and 14-year-old design and technology students at the start of a six-week product studies programme. The aim is to combine craft and skill-building with developing a better understanding of wider design issues, in particular the challenges faced by designers in some of the poorer developing nations.

First, I present my students with a range of structured experiences and conversations that give them an idea of how designers approach and solve problems.

Designers have to understand the issue, so I place students in a darkened room and ask them to read by candlelight or with a storm lantern. I then get them to measure the light levels using an app on the class iPads.

Next, it's time to expand the research. Pupils read and discuss newspaper articles about the infrastructure in developing countries, the social situation and the particular challenges that those trying to solve the light issue may encounter. They also watch videos from charity SolarAid, which aims to tackle poverty and global warming by creating a sustained market for solar lights. (For resources from SolarAid's education team, visit www.tesconnect.comSunnySchools.)

With the issue thoroughly researched, it is time to discuss what pupils can do about it. We start with an assessment of the skills and knowledge they possess that they might be able to make use of. Suggestions generally include the ability to fundraise, and we discuss the ways in which start-ups can raise money, such as crowdfunding. This tends to get students really excited because it offers the potential for any good idea to be funded, whether it is a school project or not.

Going into autonomous learning mode, the pupils then brainstorm ways of bringing light to the East African communities that are the focus of SolarAid's work. Working in groups of three, some students concentrate on improving existing devices, using SolarAid's small solar-powered lanterns as a starting point. Others focus on fundraising ideas and even ways of changing the political systems that contribute to the problem.

The groups then present their ideas to their peers. Each idea is discussed and errors, potential problems and suggested improvements are pointed out. The aim is to settle on just one idea, which can lead to heated debates. But the students are always practical and we settle on an idea that the whole class works to develop into a full presentation.

The impact of a programme like this is hard to estimate. It doesn't follow the usual design and technology mantra of "design what you make; make what you design", and there is no item to take home at the end, but students' enthusiasm for talking about real-life problems can significantly influence their decision to pursue careers in design and to use those careers to help others.

David Baker is a design and technology teacher at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, West London

Top 10 problem-solving resources

1 Problem pointers

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2 Silent success

Challenge your students to solve this tricky jigsaw in silence, to see how they work as a team without being able to talk.


3 Joking aside

Add an extra dimension to PE activities by issuing these "joker cards", which set challenges such as changing the rules, adding and subtracting players or blindfolding team members.


4 Challenge time

This presentation provides a number of strategies for challenging your students in the classroom, including hot-seating, drama tasks and an activity called Conscience Alley.


5 Crossing conundrum

How can a man cross a river with a bag of grain, a chicken and a fox when there is only room for himself and one other item in the boat - and the animals are looking a little peckish? These worksheets will get students started on solving this traditional quandary.


6 Sweet talking

In this delicious challenge, students must build a structure from spaghetti, masking tape and string that will hold a marshmallow. Offer a prize for the tallest tower.


7 Jump start

Use the example of Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking freefall from space to get across the idea that even the greatest challenges can be overcome.


8 Team time

Get your class working as a cohesive unit with these team-building games that focus on communication, problem-solving and physical challenges.


9 Paper house

Get students to build a structure that their whole team can fit into using only newspaper and masking tape.


10 It's no yolk

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David Baker

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